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Growth Through Observation

January 24, 2016

One of the most effective ways to improve teaching is to have mentors and colleagues observe lessons and provide critical feedback. This process of being watched, in and of itself, causes teachers to question and reflect upon their methodology and their students. The additional ideas generated from another source can inspire improvement and a desire to be creative. Through review, teachers can be affirmed of their strengths and challenged to improve. As a mentor of piano pedagogy students, my goal is to encourage the next generation of teachers to be inventive and avoid the “teach-as-I-was-taught” mentality. I ask them to consider new pedagogical approaches and to explore philosophical ideals.


Those I mentor at the University of South Carolina  include students in piano pedagogy courses and those employed as instructors and graduate assistants. Any observation time (live or recorded) is followed by a conference, in which I provide ratings of success, written comments, and questions for discussion and reflection. Those who record a video must always view it and write a guided reflection before meeting with me. As a habit, I form my opinions first before reading their self-evaluation.


About the Program


There are three types of teaching that I observe each semester: collegiate group piano courses, private piano lessons, and group classes that augment private study. The collegiate group piano courses are those that are requisite for a Bachelor’s degree in music and are taught in a lab of digital pianos. Our private piano lessons (45 or 60 minutes) are for all ages and levels. The classes include young beginner classes, theory classes, repertoire classes for intermediate students, and masterclasses for advanced adults. We also have a demonstration class of beginners, where the class is taught by a head teacher and the private lessons are taught by undergraduate students; this is fully integrated into piano pedagogy coursework. The piano lessons and group classes are part of the Center for Piano Studies, which is our community piano program for all ages and levels.


Group Piano Observation


Generally, our graduate assistants in group piano engage in three activities each semester: live observation, peer observation, and self-observation via video. The live observation occurs in the first two to three weeks of the semester. In addition, I am known to visit briefly, unannounced, for ten or fifteen minutes to check on the progress of a class or teacher.


The peer observation is tremendously important because each instructor can discover approaches from their colleagues, see varied class dynamics, and analyze another’s methods. Often, I will assign a specific observation because a teacher with a given weakness can observe this successfully modeled by another. The observer shares written comments with me and their colleague; these provide me with a snapshot of the class’s and teacher’s progress and the critical awareness of the observer. There are similar aims with the self-observation, although the instructors are faced with the challenge of seeing their own work as objectively as that of their peer.


Center for Piano Studies Observation


The instructors in the Center for Piano Studies are college students who are pursuing a degree in piano and/or piano pedagogy. Their students range from beginners in kindergarten to advanced adults. Because of the complexity of scheduling, I am rarely able to attend lessons, and therefore, most observations occur via video. We use a video dropbox (on a network-shared hard drive) to facilitate sharing of high definition videos, which are quite large in size.


Dependent upon the number of years teaching in the Center, teachers will have different assignments for their video observation. Graduate student teachers in their first one or two years of teaching turn in a complete lesson. Undergraduate student teachers turn in two videos, one at the start of the term and one at midterm. Those with several semesters of experience, turn in sequences of shorter videos. This fall, I requested a sequence of videos with the same student working on the same piece over several lessons. In the spring, I will request to see their work on technique with several students. These types of sequences provide a new perspective. We can address how goals are accomplished and modified from week to week, and how they approach technique with a spectrum of students.


Giving Feedback to Teachers


I do not avoid giving criticism (and praise) to these teachers, but also, these teachers are here to study pedagogy. In most cases, they are actively seeking ideas for improvement. Nonetheless, I make the process objective and constructive by focusing on the piano student and how to help the student achieve to a higher level. If there is a significant issue with the teaching style or approach, I present this from the student’s perspective. Wise use of language can keep the conversation objective and focused. Consider how the first statement is more conducive to discussion:

“The student is losing motivation due to the lack of verbal praise.”

“You are not praising the student enough, which is causing a loss of motivation.”


Because I seek to encourage self-reflection and change, I often present a pedagogical question or principle for discussion, given the content of the video. We will brain storm together on why and how to implement a change of approach. A recent discussion point with a graduate student was “Why do composers place dynamics and musical markings in the score?” This particular teacher was approaching musical markings abstractly, rather than connecting them to meaningful expression and artistic sound. My goal is that each teacher leaves with several new tactics for approaching common teaching challenges and a single strong mandate for improvement and reflection.


Written Feedback


My written comments almost always fall into three sections: student(s), teacher, and content. Under “student,” I have indicated observations such as:

  • Student needs to sit on a taller bench as the wrists are held high and elbows are far below the keybed.

  • Student has made great progress on eighth-note accuracy through this lesson.

Under “teacher,” typical comments have been:

  • Advance preparation for the lesson is evident through the question-based activity on the treble clef.

  • Direct eye contact and smiles are rare and thus the lesson does not feel connected.

Under “content,” comments have included:

  • The technical warm-ups use many keys beyond those in the method book and are enriching the student’s theoretical knowledge.

  • The new piece on eighth notes is taught by rote and the student is not asked to demonstrate eighths independently.

Each of these comments may become a basis for discussion.


My observation form is malleable, and I often find myself altering the elements given the current group of teachers. My ratings are exceptional, good, fair, lacking.  The traits include:


  • Teaching presence/language

  • Variety of instructional modes

  • Variety of skills (at the piano)

  • Use of time – pacing

  • Clarity of instructional language

  • Assessment of student performance

  • Enthusiasm on musical content

  • Student and group dynamic

  • Student performance quality

  • Clarity of practice assignment

  • Coaching of review repertoire

  • Preparation of new repertoire

  • Use of non-playing activities

  • Use of technology

  • Use of questioning/discovery

Occasionally, I will write comments organized by the elements rated, instead of by student-teacher-content. This is more efficient and clear when a category has been graded “fair” or “lacking.”


Teaching Observation as Coursework


When the observation is submitted for coursework, I grade the quality of the self-evaluation and reflection (and not the lesson itself). I encourage my graduate students to submit videos of challenging students and frustrating, unsuccessful lessons because they will learn more. If they are graded on the quality of the lesson, they will record “perfect” students, limiting the potential for true exploration. Furthermore, peer observation is part of our courses. Everyone watches the teaching of other students in class. This lends to fruitful and lively discussion of teaching effectiveness, especially when we watch lessons with “typical” and varied students.


“Teachers cannot be afraid to learn in public.”


I do not recall where I heard this statement, but it aptly fits with this aspect of being a teacher. This process of being observed and critiqued can be daunting, terrifying, and humbling, but it is a reality of every lesson and class that we teach. This becomes doubly true when we invite colleagues and mentors to watch us teach. But if we release the fear of being “correct” (or whatever may encumber us) and embrace creativity in teaching, growth is possible and will result.


Sara M. Ernst, PhD, NCTM, is an active piano pedagogue, teacher of all ages, and pianist, and serves as Assistant Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to her position at USC, she worked at the New School for Music Study in New Jersey as the Administrative Director and an instructor of piano lessons and group classes. Dr. Ernst has taught at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan and piano and piano pedagogy at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her teaching was honored with a campus-wide Graduate Teaching Award at the University of Oklahoma and with the Studio Fellowship Award from the Music Teachers National Association.


Dr. Ernst received a PhD in music education with an emphasis in piano pedagogy from the University of Oklahoma. She completed her dissertation on the teaching philosophy of Mr. Marvin Blickenstaff, a widely admired piano teacher. Her other degrees are from the University of Missouri-Columbia and Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Her former piano and piano pedagogy teachers include Jane Magrath, Barbara Fast, Karen Larvick, and John Strauss.


Dr. Ernst’s research in piano pedagogy includes investigating teaching effectiveness, the use of language in instruction, and successful parent-teacher interactions. In addition, she frequently explores pedagogical music of the 20th and 21st centuries and examines the pacing of instruction through the intermediate years. Her presentations have been featured at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, regional conferences of the College Music Society, and many state and local conferences.


She is an adjudicator for the Music Development Program as a member of the College of Examiners of the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto). In addition, Dr. Ernst has served as an anthology and syllabus reviewer for the Royal Conservatory of Music and a reviewer for the American Music Teacher and Clavier Companion. She also serves on the committee for the young professional and pedagogy student of the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy.


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